Chapter 2: The Language of Art and Architecture


Like written or oral language, the language of art and architecture has structure and organization. This chapter will concentrate the formal elements and the principles by which those elements are composed or structured.

Formal Elements

The basic units of visual art include line, light and value, shape and volume, texture, space, time and motion.

A line is a moving point. In art, lines almost always have width, but its length is the most important dimension. Actual lines physically exist and are made with some material. Implied lines are lines viewers perceive without actually being physically visible. The direction of lines help communicate visual meaning. Outlines depict shapes and contours of objects. Groupings of lines can create tone, or areas of gray. Gesture lines convey emotion and movement. Lines exist in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional art.

Figure 2-1 Lines


Figure 2-2, Utagawa Kunisada, Shoki the Demon Queller, c. 1849-1853. Woodblock print, 14 x 9 ½. Burrell Collection, Glasgow.
The bold, thick angular lines of Kunisada's Shoki the Demon Queller we can see the varieties of lines as they imply movement and furious energy.
Artist information

Figure 2-3, Paul Klee, They're Biting, 1920. Drawing and oil on paper, 12 ¼” x 9 ¼”. Tate Gallery, London.
Contour lines mark the outer edges of a three-dimensional object, allowing artists to eliminate internal detail but retain recognition of the object, as with the sailboat and buoy in They're Biting.
They're Biting at  the Tate Gallery

Figure 2-4, Albrecht Durer, Artist drawing a model in foreshortening through a frame using a grid system from “Unterweysung der Messung” (Treatise on Perspective). Woodcut.
Artist information

Figure 2-5, Royal Linguist's Staff. Akan Culture, 1900's. Asante Kingdom, Ghana. Wood, gold leaf, 65 ½” high.
Royal Linguist's Staff

Light and Value

Vision depends on the presence of light. Light may be used as a material in art or more commonly, to simply make the art object visible. Value refers to lightness or darkness of a surface in non-light emitting media. Artists adjust the values within a work of art to create the illusion of depth, to express emotion, and to create emphasis.

Figure 2-6, Bruce Nauman, Human/Need/Desire, 1983.  Neon tubing, transformer and wire, 7' 10 3/8” x 70 ½” x 25 ¾”. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Bruce Nauman at MoMA

Figure 2-7, Value Diagram

(A) Achromatic value scale. Value, or gradations of dark and light, exist between black and white.
(B) Chromatic value scale. A spectrum of dark and light exists within colors as well.
(C) Creating volume through value. The illusion of depth can be created through the manipulation of value.

Figure 2-8, Rosso Fiorentino, Recumbent Female Nude Figure Asleep, 1530-1540. 5” x 9 ½”. British Museum, London.
Recumbent Female Nude Figure Asleep exemplifies the popular use of value contrast (called chiaroscuro) and atmospheric perspective (also called aerial perspective) among Italian painters beginning in the fifteenth century.
Recumbent Female Nude Figure Asleep at the British Museum

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Objects have color as a result of certain rays of ambient light being absorbed and certain rays

of light being reflecting into our eyes. These reflected rays are translated by our eyes into identifiable colors called hues. Some properties of color are value, shade, tint, and intensity (or chroma).

The type of material an artist uses effects how color reacts. Artists using additive color systems, found in light-emitting media like computer or theatre lights, can combine its primary colors to produce white light. Artists using subtractive color systems, found in painting media, produce progressively dull and darker values as colors mixed together.

Color perception is relative, changing depending on surrounding light and color and eye fatigue. Colors suggest ideas, and can evoke emotions.

Figure 2-9, Louise Nevelson, Mirror Image I, 1969. Painted wood. 117 ¾” x 210 ½” x 21”. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Artist Information

Figure 2-10, Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. And Mrs. Andrews, 1750. 27 ½” x 47”. Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London.
Artist Information

White light can be broken down into a color spectrum. Its primary colors are red, blue, and green.

Figure 2-11, Diagram showing the Additive and Subtractive Color Systems, and the Color Wheel for mixing pigments.

Additive Color

Subtractive Color System.
Subtractive color systems include substances that absorb light like paint. Its primary colors are red, blue, and yellow.

Subtractive Color

Color Wheel.
Pigments may be mixed to produce different colors. Hues produced through the combination of two primary colors are secondary colors. Tertiary colors are produced when one primary color is mixed with a neighboring secondary color. Colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel are analogous colors. Colors directly across from each other are complementary colors.


Figure 2-12, Color Properties in Various Media.
This chart lists various properties of color in paint, light-emitting media, and commercial or computer printing.

  Paint Light-Emitting Media
(e.g., Computer Monitor)
Commercial Printing or
Computer Printer
Color System Subtractive Additive Subtractive
Effects of Environmental Light Levels More room light, the brighter the colors Less room light, the brighter the colors More room light, the brighter the colors
Primary Colors Blue, red, yellow Red, green, blue Cyan, magenta, yellow, black (CMYK)
Secondary Colors Purple (blue + red)

Green (yellow + blue)

Orange (red + yellow)
Yellow (red + green)

Cyan (green + blue)

Magenta (red + blue)
Red (magenta + yellow)

Blue (cyan + magenta)

Green (yellow + cyan)
Complementaries Blue – orange

Red – green

Yellow – purple
Red – cyan

Green – magenta

Blue – yellow
Cyan – red

Magenta – green

Yellow – blue
Mixture of All Primaries Gray or dull neutral White Black

Figure 2-13, Diagram Showing the Additive and Subtractive Color Systems, and Relativity of Color Perception.
Colors look different depending on surrounding color and eye fatigue.
Visual Illusions

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Texture and Pattern

Texture consists of physical surface variations that can be experienced tactilely through one's sense of touch. It may be experienced visually by creating an illusion of surface texture. Visual texture may simulate a surface found in real life; it may simplify or abstract a texture found in real life; or texture may be completely invented by the artist. A texture consisting of repeated forms creates a pattern. Patterns may be regular or irregular, and they help organize space and ideas.

Figure 2-14, Lion Capital of column erected by Ashoka at Sarnath, India, c. 250 BCE. Polished sandstone, approx. 7' high. Archeological Museum, Sarnath.
Pillars of Ashoka

The Lion Capital sculpture includes smooth and rough textures.

Figure 2-15, Detail of Deesis Mosaic in Hagia Sophia. Believed to be 1185-1204. Mosaic tile.
How the Mosaic in Hagia Sophia was made.

Figure 2-16, Blanket. Tlingit people, Chilkat style. Mountain goat wool and cedar bark, 31” x 71”, excluding fringe.  The Newark Museum, Newark, NJ.

1. The Tlingit People
2. Chilkat Blankets

Figure 2-17, Great Mosque of Cordoba, interior, 786. Cordoba, Spain.
The intricate patterns in the mosque reinforce the Islamic belief that all wonder in the world originates from Allah.
The Great Mosque of Cordoba

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Shape and Volume

Shape is a two-dimensional visual entity. Regular shapes are geometric. Irregular shapes are often organic or biomorphic. Volume is a three-dimensional entity with mass. Like texture, shape and volume can simulate reality, abstract from reality, or be invented.

Figure 2-18, Martin Puryear. That Profile, 1997-1999. Stainless steel, bronze, 540” x 136”. Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Puryear's steel and bronze sculpture, That Profile, is a regular volume but its name suggests that it is abstracted from a biomorphic form.
That Profile

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All art occupies space. Space allows an object to exist. In two-dimensional art, space refers to the height and width of the picture plane or planar space. The illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface is achieved through a variety of devices, including overlapping, shading, atmospheric perspective, linear perspective, multipoint perspective, and amplified perspective. Types of linear perspective are one-point, two-point, three-point, isometric, and oblique perspective. In three-dimensional art, space consists of the physical mass the artwork has as well as the voided space (or negative space) in and around the work.

Figure 2-19, Diagram of Linear Perspective.
Artists employ one-point, two-point, or three-point perspective to create the illusion of depth. Parallel lines converge on vanishing points located on imaginary horizon lines or eye level. The number of vanishing points used depends on the orientation of the rendered form in relation to the viewer.
Exploring linear perspective

Figure 2-20, Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Prisons, p. XIII. c. 1760. Etching, 21 ½” x 16 1/3 “. Giraudon/Art Resource, NY.  

1. Artist Information
2. Prisons, p. XIII

Figure 2-21, Diagram of Oblique Perspective and Isometric Perspective.

(A) Side views of planes are rendered at parallel 45¾ angles in oblique perspective.

(B) Side views of planes are rendered at parallel 30¾ angles in isometric perspective. Isometric perspective is often used in architectural drafting.

Figure 2-22, Festivities, detail of a screen depicting the popular festivities that took place at Shijo-gawa, Kyoto. Late Muromachi period, 16th century. Seikado Library, Tokyo.
This sixteenth century painting demonstrates oblique perspective.
Muromachi Period

Figure 2-23, Giorgio De Chirico. Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914. Oil on canvas, 34 ¼” x 13 ½”. Private collection.
Melancholy and Mystery of a Street

Figure 2-24, Huang Yon Ping. Bat Project I (Shenzhen), 2001. Replica of an American spy plane from middle of body to tail. China.
Huang Yon Ping Online

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Time and Motion

Time is an element in all artwork. Static art requires time from a viewer. Static art can imply movement and the passage of time through various visual devices. Media-based and performance art use time to present images or an event. Motion is an element when change takes place within a work.

Figure 2-25, Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912. Oil on Canvas, 57 7/8” x 35 1/8” (147 x 89.2 cm). The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.
Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)

The multi-faceted, flowing diagonals of Dushamp's Nude... implies furious motion.

Figure 2-26, Cai Guo-Qiang. Black Rainbow: Explosion Project for Valencia, Spain, 2005.
Cai Guo-Qiang Online

Figure 2-27, View of the Ceiling of Cave 26, one of the many caves at Ajanta dating back to 700 AD. Maharashtra, India.  See Figure 2-28 for another view of the cave interior.
Ajanta, Maharashtra, India

Figure 2-28, A second view of Cave 26 at Ajanta, Parinirvana between the columns. Cave 26 (chaitya hall). Late 5th century.
Ajanta Caves, Interior Detail, Maharashtra, India

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Artists sometimes open their art process to chance, improvisation, or spontaneity. This allows the element of the unexpected in the creation and experience of a work of art.


Allan Kaprow's Household (Fig. 16.21) was a Happening performed by several men and women, who worked from a simple premise but were free to improvise as the performance unfolded.

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Engaging All the Senses

Art can appeal to a variety of the senses. While the history of Western art has concentrated on the visual arts, performance art can engage in a complete sensory experience incorporating touch, smell, and sound. Media-based art often engages the sense of hearing.

Figure 2-29, Bwa Masqueraders. Burkina Faso.
Bush Buffalo Mask

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Principles of Composition

How the elements of art like line, shape, color and texture are arranged in a work of art is called composition . Principles of composition include balance, rhythm, scale, proportion, emphasis, variety, and unity.


Balance is achieved when the visual weight of all the elements of a composition seem evenly distributed throughout the artwork. Visual weight refers to the amount of attention an element commands from a viewer. A composition has symmetrical balance when two halves of a composition mirror each other. Such a composition conveys the feeling of stability and order. Asymmetrical compositions demonstrate a more dynamic balance through the arrangement of uneven elements. When compositional elements radiate out from the center like the spokes of a wheel, there is radial balance.

Figure 2-30, Angkor Wat, Central Temple Complex, c. 1113-1150 CE. Cambodia.
The magnificent Angkor Wat temple is laid out in a modified radial plan.
Angkor Wat Online

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Rhythm is the regular repetition of elements carefully placed in a composition, separated by intervals. Visual rhythm guides a viewer's eyes into and around a composition at a certain pace. Such a visual pattern can be regular, alternating, eccentric, or progressive.

Figure 2-31, Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Bas-relief. Angkor Wat. Cambodia.
The repeating vertical bands of carved wood and negative space formed by the two sitting figures produce an alternating rhythm. (See also figure 8.11)
Different views of Churning of the Ocean of Milk.

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Proportion and Scale

Proportion refers to the size of one part in relation to the whole or another work of art. Scale is the size of something in relation to what we assume to be "normal." Most often, scale refers to size in relation to the human body, or the size of a reproduction or model in relation to the actual artwork.

Figure 2-32, Claes Oldenburg, Coosje Van Bruggen, and Frank O. Gehry. The Binocular Entrance to the Chiat Building, 1985-1991. Venice, California.
Chiat/Day Building

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Emphasis is the creation of one or more focal points in an artwork. Emphasis lets a viewer know what element in a composition is most important. Less dominant focal points are called accents.

Unity and Variety

Unity and variety work together in making visually cohesive, yet interesting art. Artists mix and match a wide variety of formal devices in color, line, rhythm, and balance to create difference and wholeness within a single work.


An extreme example of variety is the density of Manhattan relieved by the expansiveness of New York City's Central Park, designed by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (Fig. 16.6, page 436).

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Structual Systems

Traditional Building Methods

Older building methods show how local cultures adapt their construction needs to the limits of available materials, technology, and cultural standards of beauty. The most basic building technique consists of stacking materials to create walls. This is called load-bearing construction. Walls tend to be thicker at the base and thinner at the top. The weight of the walls and roof causes the creation of windows and opening in the walls very difficult. One solution to this drawback can be found in the post-and-lintel system, which consists of two upright posts supporting a crossbeam or lintel. Decorated cylindrical posts are called columns. Many structures combine load-bearing and post-and-lintel architecture.

Figure 2-33, El Castillo, ninth-tenth centuries, elevated view, Chichen Itza, Mexico.
El Castillo Online

Figure 2-34, Diagram showing post-and-lintel construction.
A row of post-and-lintel modules is called a colonnade. Post-and-lintel construction allows for heavier and more expansive roofs. The use of lighter materials like wooden lintels required fewer posts and created more spacious rooms.


An example of a hypostyle hall is the First Hypostyle Hall at the Horus Temple at Edfu, Egypt (Fig 9.32, page 229). The thick columns support a stone roof.
 Horus Temple at Edfu

Figure 2-35, Mnesicles. The Temple of Athena Nike (right) and the corner of Propylaea (left), 437-432 BC. Athens.

1. The Temple of Athena Nike
2. Propylaea

This structure used both load-bearing and post-and-lintel construction. The exterior featured a stone colonnade and a wooden interior roof.

Figure 2-36, Diagram of Greek and Roman Orders.
Classical Greek and Roman columns consist of a base, shaft, capital and an emblature. Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders are differentiated by their degree of ornamentation.

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Wood Frame Construction

The Chinese style of wood frame construction is a complete frame system with no load-bearing walls. It consists of an interlocking system of brackets and cantilevers supported by upright posts. This building technique produced expansive, heavy, tiled roofs that provided structural stability.

Figure 2-37, Chinese wood frame structural system, showing brackets and cantilevers.
The lightness of the wood frame system created open interiors.
Hall of Supreme Harmony, from the Forbidden City, Beijing, China. 1400-1922.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony displays the characteristic curves of wood frame roofs. The grand curves of the roof dominate the building's exterior composition.
Details of the architecture of the Forbidden City

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Arches, Vaulting, and Domes

Several design innovations in stone construction based on the arch made large openings in walls possible. Stone arches distributed weight out and down onto load-bearing columns or piers. Stone roofs or vaults soared to incredible heights in European churches and halls.

Figure 2-38, Diagram of arches, arcades, vaulting, buttressing, and domes.
A variety of building designs are derived from the arch.

1. Architecture of the Early Empire
2. Egyptian Arches and Vaults

Groin vaults (or cross vaults) are barrel vaults that intersect one another at 90¾. Groin vaults provided light to enter into the enclosed marketplace.

Figure 2-39, Andrea Buffalini, Cathedral of Dubrovnik: Nave Groin Vault. Construction finished in 1713. Dubrovnik, Croatia.
The Cathedral of Dubrovnik is one example of a groin (or cross) vaulted ceiling. This innovation allowed light to enter vaulted spaces and gave variation to the interior space.
Cathedral of Dubrovnik

A dome is an arch rotated on its vertical axis to form a hemispheric vault. The dome featured in the Pantheon rests on a cylindrical base.

1. The Pantheon on Great Buildings Online

2. The dome of the Pantheon

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Recent Methods and Materials

Modern building materials like steel and steel-reinforced concrete (or ferroconcrete) exploded the scope of possibilities in architectural design. The strength of a steel frame building expanded the post-and-lintel system and, with the invention of the elevator, paved the way for the birth of the modern skyscraper. Steel reinforcements embedded into concrete produced a strong, durable material that allowed the exterior of a structure to take on almost any shape. Other skeletal frame systems like the truss and geodesic dome allow architects to choose among a variety of architectural models.

Figure 2-40, Diagram showing steel frame construction and Reinforced Concrete.
Steel-framed buildings can rise to hundreds of stories. Ferroconcrete made the construction of extra long balconies viable.

Figure 2-41, Seagram Building at Night, 1954-1958. New York City.
The Seagram Building helped to pioneer the "International Style" multistoried building, characterized by its plain, boxlike, steel and glass exterior.
The Seagram Building Online


Three famous examples of reinforced concrete structures appear in this book: Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut (Fig. 9.27, page 223), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (Fig 16.3, page 434) and the Sydney Opera House (Fig. 16.2, page 433)

The soaring exterior of the Sydney Opera House could not have been completed with the use of reinforced concrete. The plasticity of poured concrete made free-form architecture possible.

1. Sydney Opera House Home
2. Sydney Opera House on Great Buildings Online

Figure 2-42, Truss (A) and Geodesic Dome  (B) Structural Systems.
The truss system is based on triangles. The geodesic dome is based on a series of triangles that create a very stable shell that requires no interior supports.
Geodesic Dome History

Suspension and Tensile Construction consists of steel cables attached to vertical pylons or masts that can support structures like bridges, exhibition tents, or sport arenas.

Figure 2-43, Gunter Behnisch with Otto Frei. Olympic Stadium, Munich, 1972. Munich, Germany.
Olympic Stadium, Munich Online

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